Hugh Ellis

I may have to ‘eat my words’ slightly this week. I had said that the global 2019 Corona Virus Disease (or Covid-19 for short) pandemic was not likely to be a big deal for Namibia.

Obviously, with schools on semi-lockdown and international flights suspended, this is not the case. It is important we keep a sense of perspective, however.

We may even find that in the long term, a lot of good may come out of the disruption and shock this crisis has caused.

At the time of writing this column, no-one has died of Covid-19 in Namibia. Only a few people are known to be infected and they are all in self-isolation.

By contrast, a Hepatitis E outbreak that began last year claimed the lives of 56 people and made a total of more than 6000 ill, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures. Yet, in contrast to the wall-to-wall coverage of Coivid-19, Hepatitis E barely made the front pages of newspapers or necessitated emergency Cabinet meetings.

Hepatitis E is a disease driven by bad sanitation; it affects mostly the poor, and this tells you all you need to know about class structure in Namibia and who drives the national agenda.

Still, with Covid-19, the situation seems more-or-less under control.

Government has taken reasonable steps to control the spread of the virus. The state seems to have the support of civil society. The media has been diligent in spreading the news and debunking false rumors.

It is important not to panic. If you are not sick or caring for the sick, you don’t need a face mask. If you have access to soap and running water, you don’t really need alcoholic hand sanitizer. Buying up these products in large numbers means there is a lack of them for those who are most in need. Be aware.

If you do use a mask, do take note it is usually a disposable thing. I hate to think of the hygiene problems that Namibians will cause themselves by wearing masks intended for one use only, day after day.

Beyond that, let’s hope this crisis causes the Namibian government to change its priorities. Let’s hope it leads to soap-and-water socialism in the informal settlements. The massive construction of sanitation systems, in co-operation with affected communities.

I used the word ‘socialism’ because this effort must be led by the state. But it’s also important the private sector invests in the health of its employees. In this regard, subsidies for improving employees’ housing conditions would do better than ‘wellness days.’

Maybe it’s time the likes of Medi-Clinic and Lady Pohamba Hospital begin to think how they could serve some people beyond the boundaries of Eros and Kleine Kuppe, those who do not have access to fancy medical aid schemes.

Perhaps Operation Kalahari Desert should become Operation Okavango Delta, with our soldiers employed to lay water pipelines, distribute soap, dig toilets and construct sewerage lines.

It may be time to permanently end some of the loss-making Air Namibia routes that have been temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 – redirect the state funds supporting them towards the provision of health care and sanitation.

I hope the Covid-19 situation will lead to a change of attitude among rich Namibians, and many of my white compatriots in particular.

Public health emergencies show us, in a very visceral way, that we are only as healthy and as safe as the least-cared-for and most vulnerable members of our society. Hopefully when it’s over, we will begin to see the problems of the security guards and domestic workers who serve us, as our own problems. For indeed they are.

The English have a saying that ‘every dark cloud has a silver lining’. I hope the same may be true of this developing storm.

Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, and a former journalist and public relations officer. As communications officer for UNICEF Namibia he was involved in the organization’s Namibian response to Avian Flu and Swine Flu outbreaks in the 2000s. The views expressed here are personal views.